Analysts, brand consultants and other industry observers say that while Saint Laurent’s exit may have been a landmark moment in fashion history, it will have little impact on the future of the ready-to-wear house — and Gucci Group’s efforts to build the brand.
Saint Laurent showed his final collection Tuesday and his couture house will wind down after fulfilling orders from the show, as reported. While some industry observers speculated the brand may lose some of its cachet now that it no longer has couture, others said Gucci creative director Tom Ford now has a freer hand than ever to create YSL in his own image.
Interviewed backstage at his Gucci men’s show in Milan last week, Ford said he has no ambitions to do couture at this time. “But I’ve also learned never say never,” he added. “I’m very sad that Mr. Saint Laurent is retiring. It’s a sad moment for fashion, but it’s not going to have any repercussions on the brand. I don’t think YSL needs couture to compete with Dior and Chanel.”
Gucci Group maintains that it has been free to direct and develop the Yves Saint Laurent brand since the group acquired it in December 1999. Since then, it has eliminated more than 150 licenses it deemed inappropriate, ended the Variations diffusion line to concentrate on the top Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche collections for men and women and expanded by threefold the network of directly owned boutiques. Collections by Ford, the designer of YSL Rive Gauche, have earned strong press reviews and are selling strongly in its boutiques, with 178 percent growth posted in December versus a year ago.
“Yves Saint Laurent was part of another time and had already been confined to designing couture,” Carlo Pambianco, owner of Pambianco luxury goods and fashion consultancy in Milan, said. “He was no longer an influential figure, and before Gucci Group came along, the business was meandering without any real direction. I don’t think the house will suffer after the closing of the couture line. Look at Armani; he certainly doesn’t have a couture line and his business has never suffered.”
Paola Durante, an equities analyst with Merrill Lynch in Milan, said Saint Laurent’s retirement would not move Gucci’s investors, nor those of Gucci’s majority owner, the French retail giant Pinault-Printemps-Redoute. “They know Gucci and PPR have solid business plans and are behind YSL 100 percent,” she said. “Gucci is business-minded and knows about building a brand. YSL will take on a different life now that it’s entirely in the hands of Gucci.
“On a more general level, however, there is no denying that YSL’s departure will have an impact on the image of the company. In the end we are talking about the departure of a major industry personality, even if couture was not driving the business and even if YSL was out of step with the times.”
Most observers balked at the notion that Saint Laurent’s retirement, which garnered torrents of media coverage worldwide, might leave some people with the impression that the brand might soon disappear. But Nicolas Chomette-Bender, development director at Landor Associates in Paris, acknowledged some consumers may be confused by the distinctions between the retiring couturier and the current brand stewards.
“When you buy a YSL perfume, you buy a bit of the YSL myth without distinction. They buy a style and imagine, or are pleased to imagine, that YSL created it,” he said.
“Generally speaking, when the founder leaves, the brand goes through a period of decline,” added Kevin Thompson, managing director of Brandsmiths brand consultancy in London. “That’s because most big brands suffer if the original vision is not continued, if the founding personality is not there. I don’t think most consumers are aware that Gucci Group now owns YSL. When the company’s big personality goes, most consumers see the essence of the brand disappear and they move on. On the other hand, Gucci now has the opportunity to attract new audiences, new generations to YSL. The big personality is gone, but they now have the chance to replace it with a new ‘face,’ and they can reinvent it any way the like.”
Rita Clifton, chairman of London-based Interbrand Corp., said consumers today are sophisticated enough to recognize that a brand has a life beyond its founder. “People die, buildings dilapidate, but what lives on is the brand,” she said, citing the murder of Gianni Versace in 1997 as an example.
Chomette-Bender agreed the YSL brand’s fundamentals are very clear and current management must only build on the heritage. “A house doesn’t die with its creator,” he said. “Chanel is an outstanding example of success. Karl Lagerfeld has a perfect understanding of Chanel fundamentals and the ability to re-create the style.”
Asked whether Tom Ford was a strong enough personality to be the new “face” of YSL, Brandsmiths’ Thompson said: “In Europe, Tom Ford’s profile is not high enough, and there is a belief that he’s busy working for another brand — Gucci — and that could potentially create confusion.”
But symbolically and emotionally, several observers said Saint Laurent’s retirement will be a boon to Ford and YSL managers.
“It’s less stress for all of them,” said Christophe Girard, the director of fashion strategy at LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton who had previously worked as YSL chief Pierre Berge’s top aide for two decades. “There’s nothing worse than being watched by the master.”
But the question remains: Will YSL management lose anything by not having the cachet of couture which competitors like Dior and Chanel still boast? Karl Lagerfeld thinks it won’t, saying “a label can survive today without couture.” Indeed, he praised Ford for doing a “great job” with the YSL ready-to-wear collections so far and for giving a very “modern boost for the Saint Laurent image.” Observers note that Ford’s arrival at YSL led to a sharp increase in media attention to the brand, boosted by his celebrity status and the professional approach to brand development for which Gucci Group is famous.
“[Ford] understood the core idea and core customer and he’s really making it happen,” Clifton said. She said Saint Laurent’s retirement will only bring Ford and the YSL management a “sharper sense of control.”
Untangling the media impact of a couture show versus a ready-to-wear show is no easy feat. But Right Angle Research, a New York-based company that evaluates and archives media exposure for fashion clients, noted that interest in tracking YSL as a designer competitor commenced only when Ford arrived as designer.
“I think the fact that there are no more YSL couture shows is going to be marginal in terms of the publicity generated for the brand,” said Right Angle president Larry Hotz. “There’s been a lot more interest from our clients to track YSL post-Tom Ford than pre-Tom Ford. No one was concerned with it before.”
According to his calculations, the Yves Saint Laurent brand received $28 million worth of media exposure in U.S. consumer magazines last year, $7.4 million of which sprang from YSL fashion shows. By contrast, Chanel also generated about $28 million worth of editorial in 2001, with $4.6 million attributable to show-related coverage.
Traditionally, fragrance companies help finance couture shows to help drive sales. But observers said even a perfume no longer needs couture to drive the image.
“For me, it is fashion that is important, especially when it is related to one of the most famous names [in the industry],” said Chantal Roos, president of YSL Beaute, Gucci Group’s beauty division. “I wouldn’t make the direct link between haute couture and fashion, it is about the world of fashion. All I know is that there are haute couture names with no successful fragrances and also non-haute couture names with successful fragrances.”
Indeed, Chomette-Bender noted that hit perfumes like Calvin Klein’s CKOne succeeded without couture, while C’est La Vie by celebrated couturier Christian Lacroix was a “flop.”
“Couture shows are unquestionably great marketing and promotional tools, but they are not cost-effective,” Chomette-Bender agreed. “For financial reasons, couture is probably a concept of the last century.” – Miles Socha and Samantha Conti with contributions by Jennifer Weil, Paris and Luisa Zargani, Milan.